Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Few Words to a Ramallah Virgin

Yesterday a friend of mine from the US called to tell me that her friends were coming on a tour of the region. She was hoping we would have the time to meet them. I was thrilled to do so. In Palestine, hospitality is built in. You welcome guests into your home no matter how tired, sad, happy, poor or wealthy you are. A colleague of mine recently told me that of all his travels in the Middle East, it is Palestine were he felt most welcome. He was amazed that despite the painful life betrayals, Palestinians remained so welcoming to strangers, and that despite the monstrous apartheid wall, people kept their doors open to guests from all over the world. A small country like this, where cities have been completely isolated from each other, should display severe lack of interest in the outside world, but instead the isolation in this incredibly large open air jail has made Palestinians more hungry for guests. My colleague is continuously touched and moved by the generous gestures of hospitality and has promised me to write about it soon…I am still waiting on his generosity…
As I wrote to this total stranger, I was trying to convey the message of warm welcome and utter excitement to have guests at our house. I started thinking of how Palestine in general and Ramallah in particular is a lot like me, happy to receive guests, sad to see them leave only to smile again at more strangers who dare to cross through the Qalandia checkpoint. During the summer I was browsing through books we have in our library and came across a compilation of pieces written about the city by different Palestinian writers. A reoccurring theme that jumped at me immediately was the description of Ramallah’s kind welcoming arms offered to each one of those writers when everywhere else shut them out. Ramallah was their stable in which the seeked refuge and safety after every other inn turned them away. A few weeks ago, a young Palestinian writer described her great love to Ramallah in a short poem published in Al Hayat newspaper. And I am sure more people will write about this dynamically changing city with its vivacious spirit. Ramallah charms you. ..
When I think of this place I call home, I remember the longing I felt when I was far away, and the comfort that enveloped me every time I came back. The tingling inside as I walked down the streets as a young girl and now as a young mother only to be greeted by familiar faces and places. The joy that overcomes me in a few moments of quiet after the babies have gone to bed when I realize that I am getting a very rare opportunity in this ever changing world to raise my own children in the same place I was raised. I get the chance to watch them live, love, hate, miss, run away and run back (hopefully) to Ramallah just like I did…. I sleep better knowing that if I teach them to love this space, this place this city, they will feel connected to something stronger than a good job in London, Paris or New York…they will feel connected to a home, to a street to a city and most important to a country that desperately needs its young educated and present, and I really mean physically present.
So as I sat in front of my computer writing fiercely (trying to finish before the babies wake up again), I struggled to explain Ramallah and Palestine to a total stranger. Here she was a tourist, coming to visit “both” sides, but who was smart enough to realize that a tour guide cannot and will not tell you the full story. I started to think of the different articles that have appeared about Ramallah recently. I knew that there are two images vividly painted by media about the city: one is poverty, violence, dirty streets, traffic lights that don’t work, ad hock speed bumps peppered randomly on roads, barefoot children selling gum anywhere they can, corruption, and corrupt leadership; another is night life, fun, bars, alcohol, girls in short skirts and LV bags, boys with baggy jeans, iphones and a tinge of rap music in the background, NGOs, NGO workers, intellectuals leisurely smoking argeeleh and sipping on a drink in a chic cafĂ©, Mahmoud Darwish, Mahmoud Darwish’s resting place, open air souk (market), cultural events, a contemporary dance festival, film festivals, an art scene…a writhing metropolis. But the truth is Ramallah, Palestine is much more complicated. Ramallah has a very special recipe, with even the best of cooks unable to replicate. She is a lot of things. She is the woman busy in the kitchen cooking for all thirty guests in Ramadan, and welcoming them with a huge smile ignoring the shooting pain beginning from her feet and climbing persistently all the way to her neck. She is the vegetable stores in the old city mixed in with the new nail salon that just opened, and the new fancy bakery neighboring the Catholic school which looks directly onto the Friends school that has witnessed Ramallah since the 1800s, which then glances over new buildings and old ones leading to the heart and soul of it all…Al Manara circle which now leads to the newly renovated and less green Yasser Arafat square, which is surrounded by stores from my childhood, my husband’s childhood and even from before that time too. Her streets are busy and spend most of the year dug up as part of municipality rehabilitation projects; the traffic is unbearable at times, and the stores seem full but yet so empty. People throw smiles and hellos but look so drawn and hungry. Young men hang out endlessly in the streets showering young, old and middle aged women with all kinds of comments from the funny to the plain inappropriate simply because they have nothing else to do and nowhere to go. Ramallah enjoys the newly paved and renovated city center, and is beautifully and festively dressed up for Ramadan, Eid El Fitr, Christmas, Eid Al Adha and Easter, yet you catch the sadness, the despair, the underlying poverty. Ramallah is where normal signs of daily life melt so deceivingly with the incredibly not “normal” political situation. She hides her scars, her economic pangs of pain so well. For the untrained eye she seems like a new up and coming center in the Middle East. She dishes up hope with restaurants and cafes and covers up her bruises from years of occupation, military incursions, closure and suffocation. She hides tears for those lost on her streets and commemorates them with pictures as a constant reminder of the never ending ache. She fancily serves herself up as available and unafraid, only to sleep at night anxiously anticipating the next destruction. Of all cities, and all people Ramallah and her inhabitants know that nothing is constant and everything can change in one discontinuous moment in time.
Palestine, Palestinians, and Ramallah have learned to adjust, to build, to move forward as much as they can, whenever they can. They have mastered the art of living with relentless determination. I knew that no tour guide or travel agency can capture all of this in just a few days. I also knew that it would be unfair to reveal the secret to this tourist, this Ramallah virgin. With the sound of both babies waking up I hurriedly wrote: “Dear Judy, We are thrilled to meet you , please let us know when you will be arriving. We look forward to having you over for dinner as a minimum. Kindly, R.Kafri.” And I thought, let Ramallah and Palestine slowly uncover themselves to her, at the end something beautiful is waiting for both the city and the tourist…Love and a new understanding of a place so misunderstood…Let the magic happen…Ramallah, Palestine and Palestinians charm you….